Byrd, William: Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (The Great Service)
SSAAAATTBB and Organ
Edited by Craig Monson
Since its rediscovery in manuscripts at Durham University by E H Fellowes and its subsequent publication in Tudor Church Music in 1922, Byrd’s The Great Service has come to be recognised not only as his most important Anglican work, but also as one of the great masterpieces of Elizabethan art. Fellowes himself did not hesitate to call it ‘the finest unaccompanied setting of the service in the entire repertory of English church music’ – an evaluation accepted in virtually all subsequent discussions of the music of the period.
There can be little doubt, however, that its renown was more limited in Byrd’s own time. Its lavish scoring and technical complexity would have rendered the work beyond the capabilities of virtually all cathedral choirs during the more barren years of Elizabeth’s reign, even if Puritan deans and bishops would have countenanced its use. It is no wonder that the earliest copy is in the hand of John Baldwin, a singer in one of the royal chapels. Surely none but the Queen’s own musical establishment could have managed to perform The Great Service at that time when the fortunes of the Anglican church appear to have been at a low ebb.